TREKKING NEPAL – simply the best

It’s pretty simple really. Lots of places have great hiking, but Nepal has the greatest treks of them all. I was privileged to be invited on this trip, and ‘voluntourism’ was an excellent way to start. I can’t gush about this enough!

As we gasp for breath in the thin air above his village, Ang Tshering Sherpa tells us a story. When he was a little boy, his mother sent him up this mountain to tend the family yak. It was cold, so Ang sneaked some matches and lit a fire to keep warm. But the wind sent the blaze racing out of control, burning the whole hillside and bringing all the neighbours running to save their livestock.

Thirty years later, Ang has more than repaid his village for the trouble he caused them. At thirteen he became a mountain guide. Then when a grateful Australian client asked what his village most needed, Ang explained that the nearest medical help for many Sherpas was a gruelling 2-day walk away. Not only are there no roads here, there are no wheels. Sick or injured patients have to be carried on the back of man or beast.

Kushudebu Medical Centre. Photo - Rebecca Thornton

So funds were raised, and in 2006 the Kushudebu Medical Centre opened, with Ang Tshering as its president, and support from organisations including Australian schools, travel company World Expeditions and many individuals. It now treats over 10,000 patients a year, and pays for the medical training of young Nepalis who will be its future staff. We’ve just visited it, and we’re starting to realise we’re in an extraordinary place with a remarkable man.

Ten Australians and three Britons have come to Nepal to work on Ang Tshering’s next initiative, building incinerators to dispose of the garbage polluting land and waterways. Then he’s taking us on a nine-day trek.

Getting here hasn’t been easy. Our plane from Kathmandu was cancelled due to bad weather, leaving us two options – an expensive chartered helicopter or a bus followed by a walk. There was some group discussion, until somebody asked Ang, ‘How long is this bus trip?’
‘Twelve hours bus, then walk.’
‘How far?’
‘Hmm…maybe four days.’
End of discussion. The chopper was worth every cent – a spectacular flight with the snow-capped Himalayas as a backdrop.

Ang with his mother and sister

We’re still a day behind schedule, but Ang says, ‘We can have lunch at my mother’s house, then walk.’ Outside the cottage, his uncle and cousin are threshing wheat with wooden flails. Ang’s mother is shy in the company of so many strangers, and we feel a little awkward too, but she smiles as she serves us a platter of dried nak cheese. Naks are female yaks, Ang tells us – you learn something new every day. Bowls of soup materialise, prepared by gentlemen who appear out of the mist, and who we now understand will be our travelling chefs for the next fortnight.

After lunch we climb another hour to the Phungmochhe Buddhist Monastery where we’ll be building our incinerator. Deb Wilkinson from World Expeditions tells me it’s not always easy to sell these community development trips. ‘People say, “Why should I work on my holiday?” They just want to get to Everest Base Camp so they can tick off their achievement.’

Welcome to Phungmochhe

I have misgivings too. As young Phungmochhe monks greet our arrival with smiles, bows and enthusiastic applause, draping scarves around our necks, I feel slightly fraudulent. Hasn’t anyone told these people I’m not an incinerator expert? If I wanted to help, surely it would be better to send a few dollars to employ a skilled local tradesman, whose family could use the money. If the job is so easy that a klutz like me can do it, why don’t these monks take a day off from navel-gazing and do it themselves?

My fears turn out to be unfounded. I learn that a substantial proportion of the money from our trip pays for materials and local builders, and the red and saffron-robed head lama is wielding a pick beside us. None of us has any experience in this work, but it is a project where many hands can achieve a lot in three days.

To you it's just a pile of rocks, but to us it's an incinerator.

We’re building the basic incinerator structure with stones from the hillside, then covering it with cement. Former metallurgist Robin from Geelong has brought his own geologist’s hammer, and quickly ensconces himself on the growing wall, chipping and fitting the blocks into the puzzle, working tirelessly alongside the Nepali builder and his young deaf apprentice.

Environmental scientist Charelle works with Ang mixing cement, while Sydney maths teacher Chris shows she’s a dab hand with the trowel. Up the hillside, trekking guide Subar swings a sledge hammer to break up larger lumps and the rest of us form a chain gang to heave rocks to the experts. It’s a great bonding experience, bringing visitors and Nepali hosts together.

With the work nearly complete, rain stops play, and our porters entertain themselves and us with a lively music and dance session. Sherpa dancing is a sort of modest foot-shuffling, but the music of Santosh’s flute and Amar’s drum, with Ang and Kailash singing, is still in my head.

Next morning we set off on a trek towards Mt Everest. We won’t be able to claim, as Sir Edmund Hillary famously did, that ‘we knocked the bastard off’, but we plan to knock off the bastard’s lower half at least.

Spectacular when the sun shines...

This trek is officially rated ‘introductory’, though it quickly becomes apparent it’s ‘challenging’ to most of us. These are the mighty Himalayas and they’re not flat. We climb and descend up to 1500 metres a day on rough tracks, and on occasions some of us take 10-12 hours to reach our campsites. The rain is turning the path into a quagmire.

...but you have to take whatever comes along.

Fortunately we have the world’s best trekking guides. Ang and Amar, his sirdar (foreman guide), keep the pace steady and ensure everybody is safe and coping. Younger guides Subar, Kailash, Kisam and Jiban skip nimbly between us, perching over every awkward step to lend assistance. Kailash, ‘The Human Handrail’, is particularly attentive to Jemma, who seems to get a helping hand more often than is needed.

The scenery takes our minds off any tribulations. It is far lusher and more varied than I had expected. We follow terraced fields of green millet and pass through villages of grey shale cottages, with blue and white window frames. Above 3000 metres, there are wild rhododendron forests under pines dripping with ferns. Water is everywhere, pouring as waterfalls from rocky crags, swelling streams, and making a mockery of our raingear. The soles peel off Jemma’s hiking boots.

Paths in this area see few outsiders, so from every doorway giggling villagers greet us, palms pressed together under the chin. ‘Namaste (I bow to you)’, they chant, and we chant back as we slosh past.

Trekking days begin at 6am with a discreet knock on the tent flap. Nobody can knock loudly on a tent flap. ‘Black tea, Richard?’ Kisam and Jiban pour the life-restoring liquid into aluminium mugs, then return with bowls of warm water for ‘washy-washy’. As soon as our bags are packed, porters lash them together in bundles. They’ll tote our luggage and soggy tents to our evening destination.

Morning tea

Breakfast is served. Our cook Chitra Rai, aka ‘Mr Yum-Yum’, and his kitchen hands have been preparing porridge and pancakes or fried bread with omelettes. There’s plenty of food, and we need the fuel.

Our mobile kitchen

We’re on the trail before 8, aiming to do the bulk of our day’s trek by lunchtime. Mr Yum-Yum’s team overtakes us and clatters past, wicker baskets piled high with kerosene stoves, cooking pots and bags of provisions. They’re off to cook us a full three-course lunch; vegetable soup, with pappadams, Tibetan bread, lentils, chickpeas, chips, boiled vegetables, curried spam and apples as dessert.

After we’ve eaten and are strapping on our light daypacks, the crew quickly wash up and rush ahead to evening camp, where they cook an equally varied dinner. Porter Gopal carries two folding steel dining tables, sandwiching folding chairs, the bundle tied up with string and supported by a strap across the top of his head. Naturally I can’t resist trying his load. It takes all my strength to get it off the ground and my neck nearly snaps. Gopal grins. He’s been carrying it up and down hills all day, and he’s half my size.

When we fall a little behind our schedule, Ang takes us to camp in his sister’s field in Muse village. While her father-in-law carries his granddaughter around on his back, we sit in the warm, dry living room drinking salt tea (an acquired taste) and local liquor (an easily acquired taste).

Traffic on the Everest Highway

On our fifth trekking day we reach the main track between Lukla airstrip and Everest Base Camp. It’s known as the ‘Everest Highway‘, and it’s busy. We share it with mules, yaks, armies of porters and trekkers – Germans, British, French, Italian and Japanese as well as lots of Australians. Larger groups like ours have up to thirty porters, cooks and guides. There’s less time for saying ‘namaste’, but the mood is cheerful and the weather clears as we reach Namche Bazaar.

You can get anything at Namche, as long as it's beads or beanies.

For centuries Namche was the Sherpas’ principal marketplace. Now it’s booming, with property prices higher than in Kathmandu and locals cashing in on the flood of trekkers. Every building is a lodge and restaurant, with cow bells, tramping poles, mittens, socks, pack covers, jewellery and knitted beanies for sale out the front.

Most of us get some clothes washed, send very slow emails or enjoy that rare Himalayan luxury, a hot shower. There are still no wheels, though, and Namche’s ATM is out of order; last week it was hit by a passing yak.

Stupa below Mt Everest summit (left) and Mt Lhotse

The morning sun lights up the snow-capped spire of Mt Ama Dablam, and we set off up the Everest Highway again. Soon after leaving Namche we get our first clear view of Mt Lhotse, with behind it the rocky dome that is Mt Everest itself. After a picnic lunch in the sunshine, Ang leads us away from the throng up the ‘old route’, a steep forest track which has the great advantage of being deserted, apart from us and some wild goats, Himalayan tahrs.

All go at Thyangbochhe Monastery

Late that afternoon we pass through the gate and spin the prayer wheels of the Thyangboche Monastery, at 3870 metres the highest point we’ll reach on the trip. There’s a local festival starting and it’s all go – the moaning of vuvuzela-style horns played by the monks, porters setting up tents, yaks being watered, and cafes selling pastries and real coffee. Above it all there’s a gap in the clouds, perfectly framing the summit of Mt Everest. Someone pumps up an Aussie Rules footy and we play kick to kick with the Sherpas, so now we can say we’ve played the game at the highest level.

Two days later we’re farewelling our crew in Lukla with yet another party, featuring an extraordinary solo dance by our friend Mr Yum Yum, before we fly back to Kathmandu for a final dinner at Ang Tshering Sherpa’s home. There are tears, and promises to return.

In years to come, we’ll meet others who’ve been to Nepal. Maybe they whipped around the Annapurna Circuit in record time or even climbed Everest. If they ask what we achieved, we’ll reply that we didn’t go the farthest, the highest or the fastest. We built a little stone incinerator which is probably still standing. And we met the best people.

The team and the masterpiece


WHEN TO GO: The trekking season is spring (March-April) or autumn (September-November). Trekking during summer monsoons or winter snows is a serious ordeal.

FURTHER INFORMATION: World Expeditions runs guided treks combined with community development projects in Nepal. Cost of $2790 includes 18 days accommodation (a mix of tents, lodges and hotels), all meals while on the trek, local flights and transfers, guiding and equipment. Phone: 1300 720 000.

For more about this and other World Expeditions community projects, click here.

For information on Kushudebu Medical Centre, click here.

The writer was the guest of World Expeditions.

First published – Sun-Herald, Sydney


Filed under Hiking, Himalayas

37 responses to “TREKKING NEPAL – simply the best

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention TREKKING NEPAL – simply the best « Richard Tulloch's LIFE ON THE ROAD --

  2. Jan

    That was fascinating Richard. Such a worthwhile venture and a holiday to remember – not just for the participants, but for us bum-on-seat readers also.

    • Thanks, Jan,

      It’s easier to write about something about which I feel passionate. This was a great trip and good to be involved in a small way in a grassroots community project. But meeting those wonderful people really made it special.

      Hope you (along with everyone else) get a chance to do something similar some time(s).

  3. michael

    Nice article & awesome pics! What did you think of the nak cheese? Someone brought me some after a trip on the new railway to Lhasa. I liked it. Don’t know about curried spam, though.

  4. Michael, dried nak cheese is a bit like any other dried cheese – tastes like cheese, only drier. Hard to say more about it.

    Spam, on the other hand is slightly improved by a bit of currying.

    Only don’t try these tricks at home, kids.

  5. angela highstead

    enjoyed the article and the’pic’ enormously. I was on the first community project trek in 2008. On my return home I supported the clinic financially. Then sponsored the three year ‘uni’ training of the Lab Technician who will go back to work in the clinic when she finishes her training, as you mentioned in your article.

    Caught up with Ang in Adelaide when he had been awarded a Bill Clinton initiative award to attend the James Cook ‘uni’ in Qld.

    Great to see the publicity for an amazing project and an amazing young man.

    • Thanks Angela. Any support we can give Ang’s projects is appreciated, and even a little money makes a big diffference there.

      And I’m also sure you’d agree that we ourselves benefit enormously from being involved, when we are lucky enough to go to such places and meet such people.

  6. Jenny Thompson

    Yes – good to see it finally in print and the photos are great. I hope it gets some people out there to help with more such projects. Good on you.

  7. namaste richard!
    thank you very much for great articles and the pic you have done such a good job and also thanks a lot for your great support to our community we lookforward to seeing you again.thank you once again

    • Ang, it was a privilege to meet you and walk with you and work with you. You deserve, and will have, every success. Namaste, and greetings to everyone in the team!

      PS. Don’t play with matches!

  8. Thanks Richard for Interesting Article with Beautiful Pictures. Loved reading the Article and thanks for the comment in my blog.

  9. Pingback: Trekking Nepal in January: Annapurna to Dhaulagiri - Travel, Food, and Wine

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  11. Thanks very much, DUT – you have a wonderful country!

  12. Thanks lot Richard! Have you been to Nepal?
    I was Trekking guide 11 years. Now i have start my own Trekking Agency. I am promoting. help to promote.

  13. pleasure reading your experience of trekking in nepal richard !! great job

  14. Reblogged this on World Youth Adventures blog and commented:

  15. Wow, this is fantastic! Before I went to Nepal in 2010 I raised enough money with my kids to build a reading center. I didn’t get to see it but felt good about the fact I was giving something in return. Since that trip, I’ve been blogging away and started a whole new life in volunteerism and advocacy. Anyway, enough about me. I would love to feature this post on my blog under my “Sunday Social Good”. I try to use guest posts about cool things going on around the world. Would you be interested in this? Please let me know. Thanks! Nicole
    P.S. I really would love to go back to Nepal. Someday I know I will!

  16. just found this post of yours – sounds like a great trip – I like the idea of volunteering with the added bonus of travel. Cheers to you, your comrades and Ang!

    • Highly recommended, FP and Ang deserves great credit not just for his careful but laid-back tour guiding but for his wonderful work among his people.

      World Expeditions were great organisers too. My neighbour in Sydney has just done another Nepal trek with them and was also most impressed.

  17. Pingback: WEEKLY PHOTO CHALLENGE: BEYOND – hmm, tricky…! | Richard Tulloch's LIFE ON THE ROAD

  18. That was a fascinating story well told with great photos.Pleased that the photo challenge gave you the opportunity to retell it. I agree that the very best travel experiences are when you actually meet and interact with local people. Many of my memorable experiences involved WWOOFing, couchsurfing or house sitting. Did you ever get time or opportunity to revisit?

    • Naturally I hope to get back some time, pp, while the knees and lungs still work.

      Yes, that WWOOFER experience must be an interesting one too. My farmer friends in New Zealand often have workers on their place, and they show them a good time.

      • I’ve only WWOOFed in Australia and the hosts really look after you, some were abit surprised when a couple of 60+ year olds turned up but we could pull our weight, any one can weed and mulch or even help with house work at any age….

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